Friday, July 9, 2010

A Walk Across America

A Walk Across America
© 1979 Peter Jenkins
288 pages

We walked straight west. I had everything I needed in the world resting comfortably on my shoulders, and the entire country waiting to be discovered.  (p.55)

In the late spring of 1973, Peter Jenkins decided to go for a walk. The increasingly jaded college graduate, still recovering from a divorce, was willing to quit America all together. War and government corruption rendered him a cynic about the country's worth and promise, and a growing sense of wanderlust urged him to drop off the grid altogether. Urged by family members to see first-hand the country he was willing to leave on foot, Jenkins and his Alaskan Malamute Cooper set off on a journey to meet the land and people. The whole of the journey is not contained within this book, for he stops in New Orleans to chronicle the first great part of the story. Beginning in Connecticut, Jenkins hikes to D.C, then through the Carolinas and Virginia, across part of Tennessee, down through Alabama, and then west across the Gulf Coast until he stops to rest in New Orleans.

The road between Connecticut and Louisiana connects Jenkins' story with the lives of others -- an old mountain man with a reputation for shooting intruders,  grizzled lumberyard workers, ranchers, hippies, evangelists,  the Alabamian governor, paranoid drunks, and murderous lawmen. He meets friends and foes as he hikes through the mountains and down to the Gulf Coast, braving the Appalachian winter and the Deep South's humid, scorching summers. Although few photographs depict the surroundings, their beauty is made clear through Jenkins' descriptions, and the stories he tells about the characters he meets are almost too hard to believe -- particularly one in which he was literally run out of town by a lynch mob, keen on doing him in for looking like a hippie. Jenkin's stories are set in a different time: when he walks through Selma, Alabama, for instance, the massacre at the town's bridge during the Civil Rights movement is only a few years in the past. Segregationist George Wallace still reigns supreme in Montgomery, and in Tennessee, Stephen Gaskin's "Farm" is growing in size.  Jenkins spends the better part of a year navigating from Connecticut to Orleans, occasionally stopping to work in order to save up money for another leg of the journey. He spends a few weeks at The Farm, noting that its emphasis on simplicity seems contrived next to the simplicity of life he's found on the road: he moves on when the cultish atmosphere spooks him.

Jenkins is an enjoyable writer, communicating the humor, terror, despondency, and hope that his walk stirs in him. I identified with him immediately, being a restless college graduate who also wants to retreat from modern society. His tone made it clear that between starting the journey and writing the novel, he's converted to something: he introduces his Connecticut self in the same way Bill O'Reilly might introduce a guest he despises.  That tone makes him hard to take seriously, but once he hits the road his experiences take first priority. Although many of the stories are hilarious in themselves, he often sets up jokes. In the final section, for instance, he writes that he looked forward to staying at the seminary in New Orleans for a while: there would be no girls, there, no distractions. Naturally he meets his second wife. Sections are headed off by illustrations that overlay scenes from his travels across a map of his route: I particularly enjoyed these illustrations.

A sectional illustration, depicting a revival scene in Mobile (where Jenkins was "saved", one of Mobile's great trees (which he fawned over), a farmhouse he stayed at for a week or so, and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a Civil Rights monument. 

A Walk Across America will remain one of the more interesting books I've read, I think. Although I enjoyed reading a book about life on the road -- something I've been looking for for a while now -- Jenkins' story resonated with me not only because of our similar stations in life when he started this walk, but for the places he walked through. While Americans -- and particularly those who live along the eastern and southeastern coasts of America -- will enjoy this most, I would recommend it to  general audiences for the stories alone. Jenkins has written other books, which I will be reading.



  1. Definitely sounds like Into The Wild. I think I have to find this now.

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